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Island family celebrates the life of two loved ones at Seattle Brain Cancer Walk

Gary Bracken being tethered into a Mexican Navy vessel to be taken to the nearest hospital. - Photo courtesy of Liz Bracken
Gary Bracken being tethered into a Mexican Navy vessel to be taken to the nearest hospital.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Liz Bracken

In the spring of 2008, Gary Bracken was asked by a friend to be his first mate on a sailing trip from Mexico to Tahiti.

Although he knew little about sailboats, Bracken had spent decades as a powerboat owner and had made trips to Alaska and back.

He was a boater by heart, so he jumped with both feet first and swiftly completed the necessary sailing courses and began reading extensively about seafaring in the Pacific Ocean.

It was a surprise to everyone who knew him when he did not make it through the first week.

“He was a healthy man,” said his wife, Liz Bracken. “It was not as if he had seizures or headaches. He had just been to the doctor.”

Just before leaving on the trip, Bracken underwent a physical that showed no signs of concern.

However, two days into the sailing voyage he began swinging in and out of consciousness. He and his friend, Geoff, were to take shifts between sleep and skippering the boat, but Bracken couldn’t be roused in the boat’s lower deck.

Geoff, who was in constant contact with his wife, Sally, back in the states, knew something wasn’t right and asked her to call for help.

She got in contact with the Mexican Navy for emergency aid.

A rescue boat was brought out to the two men, and, in rough waters, a diver was able to tether Bracken through the ocean to the Navy vessel.

In the meantime, Bracken’s wife, Liz Bracken, flew down to Puerto Vallarta to meet him at the hospital.

Once there, she was told by doctors that her husband had a sizable brain tumor, and his only chance to living through the weekend was to operate. Having said that, the doctor told her she had to get her husband back to Seattle immediately, since the Mexican hospital had no neurosurgeons.

It was Friday afternoon. The banks in Puerto Vallarta were closed for the weekend. There was no way for her to wire money to the hospital.

Sally, Geoff and Liz Bracken combined their credit cards and arranged for a medivac.

But, if it wasn’t one obstacle, it was another.

After footing the bill for the medivac, Liz Bracken was told she had to then arrange for a receiving neurosurgeon in Seattle.

“It’s not like I have neurosurgeons up my sleeve,” Bracken said. “I don’t even know how I got a hold of (my doctor) on a Friday afternoon.”

Bracken’s family doctor on Bainbridge Island, Dr. Robert Hurlow, answered the call, and despite the fuzzy reception, heard Liz Bracken’s pleas for the best neurosurgeon in Seattle.

Hurlow connected them with Dr. Greg Foltz at Swedish Medical Center.

“Untreated, Gary would have died in the hospital in Mexico,” Bracken said. “If we were here, it was maybe three months.”

With Foltz’ help, Liz Bracken explained, her family was able to enjoy, not just a weekend, but a little more than a year with her husband.

As soon as Liz Bracken arrived at the hospital with her husband, Foltz went to work. He took him into surgery to relieve the fluid pressure building up in his skull.

“Doctors are real conscientious, compassionate people,” Bracken said.

Liz and Gary Bracken with son, Andy Bracken, at Stanford University his last year of college.Bracken, who has a family of pianists, explained Foltz’ first passion was concert piano. He had accompanied various symphonic orchestras and was an accomplished musician for the St. Louis Opera before he discovered his calling as a surgeon and brain cancer researcher. Foltz decided to take on a new path when he encountered the death of a friend from a brain tumor.

This new path led him to become one of the top neurosurgeons in Seattle and to found the Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at Swedish. Bracken fell upon not only the best of the best, but also a friend.

In Gary Bracken’s last year, Foltz, the boating community and friends at Island Fitness pulled together for the Brackens.

Bracken was able to see his son, Andy Bracken, through his last year at Stanford and join his family at their first Brain Cancer Walk on Mercer Island before he passed away in May 2009.

Before he was diagnosed, Gary Bracken had a dozen marathons under his belt. He had built two homes from the ground up and completed two major renovations since the family moved from Colorado to Washington. He was also a master boater and had taken the family on countless trips.

“Everything we’ve done, I have to say, is because Gary was a dreamer,” Liz Bracken said. “He was a visionary.”

The family continued to attend the Brain Cancer Walk since his passing. Then in June 2013, Foltz passed away after a fight with pancreatic cancer.

“He was always so hopeful,” Bracken said. “When he died it took my breath away all over again. But it’s hopeful, because the walk continues.”

The Bracken family will attend their sixth Brain Cancer Walk in Seattle on Saturday, Sept. 21.

Bracken said, this is not just to celebrate the life of her husband but to also honor and support the research Foltz lived by.

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